N is for Not interfering

7 08 2011

In 1966, Leonard Newmark wrote a prescient article called How not to interfere with language learning. For various reasons, the notion of not interfering has come back to me repeatedly over the last couple of weeks.

1. A colleague sent me a copy of a book he recently published, called The Mindful Teacher (MacDonald & Shirley, 2009). In this, he and his co-author advocate an antidote to what they describe as ‘alienated teaching’, and recommend strategies teachers can use to become more ‘mindful’. One such strategy (or synergy) is simply stopping. “And then stopping again. And then again.”  They comment: “It might seem ridiculous to imagine that simply stopping could be described as emancipatory. We are socialized to believe that being busy is a virtue.”  However, this constant busy-ness distracts us from responding, in a calm and reflective manner, to the complex nature of classroom events. So, drawing on principles derived from meditation, they make a good case for “stopping and taking an inner account of what is transpiring, and not allowing yourself to be rushed into actions that you might regret later” (p. 65).

2. In a second-hand bookstore in Boston,  I ran to earth a mint copy of an old favourite, Earl Stevick’s Memory, Meaning & Method (1976), and almost accidentally came across the following advice: “Teach, then test, then get out of the way” (p. 122). Stevick goes on:

“By failing – or even refusing – to get out of the way, the teacher becomes the Controlling Parent. Just how often to ‘get out of the way,’ and how soon, and how far, are matters of judgement which cannot be prescribed here or in any other book. In general, however, most of us would do well to step further aside, and sooner and more often, than we are accustomed to doing. As the teacher learns to limit himself, he can give more independent meaning and value to others in the classroom” (p. 123).

3. A comment in last week’s blog (Z is for Zero Uncertainty) reminded me of a great little article on reading that came out in the ELT Journal a long while back, in which, amongst other excellent advice, Ray Williams recommends that “teachers [of reading]  must learn to be quiet: all too often, teachers interfere with and so impede their learners’ reading development by being too dominant and by talking too much” (Williams,1986, p. 44).  He adds that “the primary activity of a reading lesson should be learners reading texts” (p. 42).

4. A week or so ago, I posted the following comment on Kevin Giddens’ fascinating blog on ‘Do Nothing Teaching’:

I read this piece in the NY Times yesterday, on ‘do nothing gardening’ (http://tinyurl.com/445ysgv) and there was a mention of a piece in the New Yorker titled ‘Don’t just do something. Stand there!” This intrigued me so I googled it, and came across this book: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter (Weisbrod & Janoff, 2007).

The blurb for the book goes like this:

Most people think meetings are all too often a waste of time. But Weisbrod and Janoff say that’s only because of the way most meetings are run. In this book they offer ten principles that will allow you to get more done in meetings by doing less. The key is knowing what you can and can’t control. You can’t control people’s motives, behavior, or attitudes. That’s one area where most meeting leaders’ attempts to “do something” actually end up doing nothing at all. But you can control the conditions under which people interact, and you can control your own reactions.

The 'hole in the wall'

4. Last month I gave a talk at the New School in which I mentioned the work of Sugata Mitra, and his amazing Hole-in-the-wall project in India. By analogy with minimally invasive surgery, Mitra has coined the term minimally invasive education, which he defines (on the above website) thus:

“Minimally Invasive Education is defined as a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher”.

6. Finally, all this had me hunting out an email from another colleague who had written to me, describing how, in rural Catalonia, he and his partner set up a very successful immersion program for business people needing English. He commented:

If you’re lucky enough to get people at the right moment in their learning trajectory (lower intermediate sort of thing), these courses strike the punters as almost miraculous, specially if they’ve spent years struggling through more traditional English classes.  They blossom: they start really getting a handle on things, they gain confidence, and they’re off. The secret, as you well know, is to let them talk, and gently guide them: just prime them, give them a bit of help and feedback now and then (just to show you’re still there), and let them go. What I’ve learned in my long career as an English teacher is to just shut up, not to jump into a silence, and not to offer advice until it’s asked for.  If ever I were to write a book for EFL teachers, I’d call it “Get out of the f***ing way!”

On that note, I’m going to stop.

I mean, really stop. I need a break.  I’ll be back in September. Stay tuned!


MacDonald, E., & Shirley, D. (2009). The Mindful Teacher. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Newmark, L. (1966). How not to interfere with language learning. Reprinted in Brumfit, C., and Johnson, K. (Eds.) (1979). The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stevick, E. W. (1976). Memory, Meaning & Method: Some psychological perspectives on language learning. Rowley, MA.; Newbury House.

Weisbrod, M., & Janoff, S. (2007). Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Williams, R. (1986). ‘Top ten’ principles for teaching reading. ELT Journal, 40/1.